I think it was a great year for music in general, but since my living circumstances changed radically last February I haven’t been able to listen to new stuff in as dedicated a way as I used to. Much of my more intense listening, in fact, was done on the train while going into Tokyo, which takes about an hour. Since I don’t go in during rush hour and my line isn’t a particularly busy corridor, it’s a relaxing ride and allows me to get into the music without having to worry about whether or not I’m bothering the person next to me. But it is limiting, since I tend to jump from one new release to another without absorbing them as albums, meaning integrated collections that should be heard from start to finish and in order. I know that isn’t the way most people listen to albums any more, but I still believe that most artists who make albums think of them that way when they record and mix them. Consequently, for the past month I’ve been trying to take time to do that for the records I felt partial to, and for the most part my initial feelings were borne out through concentrated attention, except for the first album on my list, which I liked immediately but, since it’s a punk record, I didn’t return to very often, because, well, punk is as generic as a pop genre gets. So it was only when I sat down and listened to Here and Nowhere Else from start to finish, uninterrupted, several times that it made the impression I assume it was supposed to make.
As for the album I listened to the most this year, it’s not on this list, and not because it’s a re-release. As a whole, I don’t think it’s quite as great as a lot of people made it out to be, but it’s still impressive. The Complete Basement Tapes was never something I thought I needed since the original legitimate release was plenty good enough, and I’d always thought that all the other stuff Dylan and the Band did that didn’t get officially released on that album was probably would not be interesting in the long run. What I didn’t really expect was how much of it there was, and how varied it would be. Since it took me close to a month to get through all six discs I only fixed on a handful of previously unfamiliar tracks, which I’ve returned to on occasion, but the rest of it is mostly disposable. Still, I’m glad I have it all, since it came from a time when I was just starting to understand what this kind of music could deliver, and hearing it fresh again after all these years has made me re-evaluate what it was that intrigued me in the first place, namely, the immediacy that Dylan and the Band, separately and together, conveyed in their music; the sense that this is what mattered at that particular moment they were making it. It’s also what I miss about listening to music, the capability of being lost in a song, oblivious to everything else. It’s hard to do at home any more. If only the train ride were longer.
1. Here and Nowhere Else, Cloud Nothings (Carpark/Hostess)
Nothing tentative here, no elliptical codas or epic guitar freakouts. Every song breaks out of the gate at a frantic clip and just gets faster. Even the seven-minute-plus “Pattern Walks” has something definite in mind, though Dylan Baldi is practically incomprehensible, as if this furious feeling was something he needed to get out of his system as quickly as possible. If you let him, he’ll get it out of your system, too.
2. Run the Jewels 2, Run the Jewels (Mass Appeal)
Speaking of speed, between them Killer Mike and El-P spit so fast you’ll need a shower after listening to their second joint, and it’s difficult to gauge where the propulsion comes from; maybe Mike’s prescient grasp and informed analysis of the year’s big “story,” or El-P’s rocket-fueled paranoia. The styles are too different to complement each other, so they just build until the pulse is so strong you think their hearts are going to burst.
3. They Want My Soul, Spoon (Loma Vista)
Brit Daniels has always been about precision, in both his expression and the shape of his music. On his band’s eighth album he allows for a bit more lushness and is freer with his emotions, and as a result the guitars occasionally swing and the piano chords come down with more force, filling the room. The songs are so big and inviting that he sounds as if he’s perfectly happy to share that soul of his. The question is: Can “they” handle it?
4. Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Banks (Prospect Park)
Interscope’s loss is our gain, but it’s easy to understand how a corporate entity would not know how to work with an artist who seemed to mature at the speed of sound and, as a result, kept changing her musical m.o. over the 3 years it took to record her debut. There is so much more to this collection than the perfect radio single “212,” and most of it has to do with her willingness to provoke a reaction and the ease she demonstrates in doing so. Her material is far more complicated and nuanced than her occasional reckless public pronouncements might suggest, but that goes without saying with someone who’s complicated and nuanced.
5. Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978 (!K7 Records)
Haitian music has always lagged behind that of other Latin-languaged New World countries in terms of notoriety. The lesser known regional combos compiled herein ply a snappier kind of funk, a more metallic groove than the club dance music I usually associate with the Carribean. You can imagine these musicians playing these songs night-after-night the exact same way, and always enjoying themselves as if it were the first time.
6. Somewhere Else, Lydia Loveless (Bloodshot)
The conventional wisdom about 90s alt country was that the youngsters who rallied to its “authenticity” started out as punks, an idea that makes perfect sense with regard to this 23-year-old Ohio native, who doesn’t have the life experience to be as credibly sentimental as country requires but is too fired up with youthful abandon to care about it. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t actually hurt or love as desperately as she claims to. She sounds possessed by her beliefs, and gets off playing with a band that takes her word for it.
7. Jaiyede Afro, Orlando Julius with the Heliocentrics (!K7 Records)
One of the original architects of what was reductively called Afrobeat in the 70s, this Nigerian saxophonist teams up with the famously elastic UK jazz-funk ensemble for a journey that not only boogaloos down memory lane, but shimmies into a future where labels like “Afrobeat” lose their distinction. It’s all soul music in the end.
8. Love Marriage & Divorce, Toni Braxton & Babyface (Motown/Universal)
The D-word is rarely uttered in pop, and the heartbreak these two long-time musical-not-romantic partners explore on this odd concept album was experienced separately. Babyface is contrite and resigned, while Braxton is mad as hell. “I hope she gives you a disease,” she sings, sounding more like herself than she has in at least a decade. Bitter is better.
9. Platinum, Miranda Lambert (RCA)
A typical Nashville reactionary, Miranda Lambert owns her femininity with the arrogance of a redneck and dutifully pays lip service to values and objects that represent an idealized (read: airbrushed) Southern past she didn’t experience firsthand. That this long album sells her convictions without sugar-coating them speaks to her talent as a songwriter and a studio crew attuned to her world view, which is more generous than she initially lets on, and not just in terms of finding solidarity with every other struggling person on the planet. She knows exactly how far a good rock guitar hook can take her.
10. Syro, Aphex Twin (Warp/Beat)
Rather than split the difference between his usual polarities of bonkers pop parodies and neo-impressionist stumpers, Richard James, assuming the Aphex Twin moniker for the first time in 13 years, pumps out 12 tracks with enough structure and melodic integrity to appeal directly to the senses. I’d even call them songs but people would laugh at me.
Benji, Sun Kil Moon (Caldo Verde): Shamelessly self-pitying odes to dead family and friends and an adolescence that is none of our business, but the man gets his point across through persistence and a heartbreaking guitar style that more than compensates for the lack of verbal concision.
The London Sessions, Mary J. Blige (Capitol/Universal): Not so much reinvigorated by a trip across the pond and collaborations with fawning Brit club producers as amused to the point where she can relax and look objectively at her diva image and all the histrionics that come with it.
Nikki Nack, Tune-Yards (4AD/Hostess): Merrill Garbus no longer endeavors to entertain the 6-year-old in her listeners, which isn’t to say she’s lost her unique sense of fun, only that they may not get the joke as quickly as before.
English Oceans, Drive-By Truckers (ATO): Mike Cooley comes into his own as not only a songwriter as rich and colorful as Patterson Hood, but as a singer with a stronger claim to the legacy of those Southern rock bands DBTs have always lionized.
Are We There, Sharon Van Etten (Jagjaguwar/Hostess): Only PJ Harvey gets away with such a naked show of romantic tension, even if Van Etten’s folk-rock tunes and hushed singing style hide more than they reveal. By producing herself for the first time she hits on a style that highlights her unusual ardor, and when she lightens up, she shines like the morning sun.